The Heart of the Matter

What is the most ridiculous argument that you’ve ever had with your partner? Maybe it was a discussion about whether you should get the blue chair or the brown chair to go with the desk in the upstairs office that turned into an all-out clash. It could have been a debate about some inconsequential fact about where Bon Jovi’s early career. If you’re like a lot of couples, it can be something as simple as attempting to figure out what to have for dinner that leads to an unexpected shouting match. 

It’s the kind of argument that, when you’ve cooled off, you can’t believe you got so angry so quickly about something so unimportant. How on earth could you have gotten into a fight about that?

Chances are you didn’t. 

If we were just arguing about chairs or facts or dinner selections, we would never get to the point of raising our voices. When we argue with this kind of intensity, there is a very good prospect that we’re actually trying to make a point about something much deeper but we fail to get past the superficial level. 

Emotions. They are a wonderful part of what it means to be human. They give us energy and drive and help us connect with the people we love. We don’t fall in love because of facts and figures. We fall in love because we share something deeper – something beyond what we can put into words. Falling in love is an emotional, not a rational, experience. 

We can go as far to say that emotions are not rational. It’s true. They exist on a level of our brain that is below our rational abilities. Emotions are more fundamental to what it means to be human that our ability to reason. 

One the problems we often run into (especially when we get into these kinds of disagreements) is that we generally aren’t very good at being connected to our emotions. We aren’t good at describing them or talking about how they show up in our experiences. We’re not very good at labeling them and seeing them as valid parts of what it means to be human in ourselves or the people we love. Instead, we minimize them by saying things like, “You’re just being emotional!” Sometimes, we explain them away by thinking, “Oh, he’s just letting his emotions get the better of him.” When we think about emotions like this, it’s easy to understand why people try and avoid them. 

We don’t choose our emotions. Our emotions emerge from our experiences. Everything that has made us who we are determines how our bodies respond physiologically and emotionally to any given situation. Until we learn to get in touch with this aspect of our humanity, it’s going to seem like we’re arguing about not wanting chicken for dinner when we’re really trying to express that it hurts when our wants are dismissed. Maybe adamantly insisting on the blue chair over the brown is more about alleviating our fears about the shortfall in this month’s budget than a preference for décor. 
In my work with couples, I often find that the problem is not the problem. In other words, when a couple tells me that they argue incessantly about inconsequential things, that isn’t really what they’re concerned about. Usually, they just don’t know how to communicate in ways that let their partner in on their own emotional experiences. They don’t know how to or they don’t feel comfortable sharing their fear or embarrassment or anxiety. Talking about our emotions in this kind of way can feel vulnerable. It can seem volatile, especially if we’re not used to moving beyond the superficial layer to the emotional depth underneath.

But connection is not rational. To grow that connection even stronger it is going to require something other than rationale. To get there, we need to do the hard work of learning to put our feelings into words. For many of us, it might mean that we have to learn a new vocabulary or how to monitor exactly what it is that we’re feeling. We need to learn how to speak about our emotions as experiences that emerge from our internal world rather than blaming our partner for doing something that makes us feel mad. We also need to learn to accept the emotions of our loved ones and see them as valid. Remember, emotions don’t rely on rationality. Your partner’s emotions don’t have to make sense to you to be real and valid and important. 

All of this can feel overwhelming. Maybe that’s why we spend so much time on the frustrating but known surface layer. If it’s overwhelming for you in your relationship, it can be helpful to find a therapist who understands how and why couples fight in this way. Therapists like this can help you learn new, effective ways of communicating that move past the surface to the deeper layers where conflict actually lives. It can move you into the emotional center where the real opportunity for connection exists. 

The truth is that every seemingly insignificant argument is an opportunity to move towards your partner. Every argument, underneath the surface, is an emotional experience that your partner is inviting you to see and to understand. It’s risky and scary and requires vulnerability. But the payoff is an ever-increasing sense of love and the satisfaction of getting to the heart of the matter.